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Pregnancy discrimination trial in Napa against restaurant group

On June 3, a pregnancy discrimination trial began in Napa County Superior Court in which a restaurant server alleged that a job transfer from her New York workplace to the company's location in Yountville fell through because of pregnancy discrimination.

Misunderstanding or discrimination?

In Scott-Allen v. Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, the plaintiff, Vanessa Scott-Allen, was a successful server in an elite New York restaurant that is part of a national restaurant company. Scott-Allen alleges that she was offered a transfer to the French Laundry, a famous Napa restaurant within the company, but that after she moved across the country to California, management in Napa rescinded her job offer after discussing logistics for her upcoming pregnancy leave.

Plaintiff Scott-Allen described in her complaint many factual details that would support her allegations of discrimination. Court filings allege that the plaintiff was on vacation in California in early 2016, and visited the restaurant in question, the French Laundry, with her husband. During the visit, plaintiff allegedly told General Manager Michael Minnillo that she was considering moving to California. According to the lawsuit, the General Manager told the plaintiff that she could relocate to the French Laundry, stating that they would "would love" to have her work there.

According to the New York Times, defendant Thomas Keller Restaurant Group says there was "poor miscommunication on both sides" and that Scott-Allen had made false assumptions that the transfer was a given.

Internal company emails, cited in court filings, include the following exchange:

"Apparently she is pregnant," wrote Minnillo in a March 1, 2016, email to the company's head of human resources. "She never mentioned this to me. I am confused how to proceed." Human resources apparently responded: "Well, unfortunately not much we can do. What was committed verbally or in writing?"

The Times reports that plaintiff's lawyer said in his opening statement that while she had been told there was no job for her, the Napa location hired someone right away who had no comparable experience and was not pregnant.

Pregnancy discrimination lawsuit

Plaintiff's complaint is based on state labor and employment law violations, which is not unusual considering the extensive responsibilities put on employers by California statutes and regulations. She alleges 12 different counts, mainly sex discrimination (including pregnancy), retaliation, interference with pregnancy leave rights, wrongful termination and other claims based on statutes and state common law (court-made law).

The complaint is available on Westlaw at 2016 WL 7383371.

This case has some takeaways for state employers. For example, particular care should be taken to ensure that pregnant employees are not denied opportunities simply because they are pregnant. Moreover, policies and practices regarding transfers should be clearly enunciated and communicated to employees (preferably as part of an up-to-date employee manual) so there is no misunderstanding.

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